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4 The Hard Way

Advanced Micro Devices launched its first quad-core microprocessor Sept. 10 at Lucasfilm's Letterman Digital Arts Center in San Francisco. Along with an armed guard of Stormtroopers and a wandering Wookie, some 50 OEMs were in attendance or had filmed tributes to the long-awaited release of the chip, codenamed Barcelona, that AMD calls the "world's most advanced x86 processor ever designed and manufactured."

That's a sharp contrast to the launch of the first Opteron back in 2003, when just one OEM, IBM, stood next to AMD on the stage. It took some time to get others on board, but eventually Opteron started taking a bite out of Intel's near- total x86 market share, particularly after AMD changed the server chip game with its dual-core products in 2005.

With quad-core Opteron processors now in the hands of AMD's OEM partners and system builder channel, the question is: Can AMD do it again? Can a company that has posted operating losses for three straight quarters muscle its way back into the server chip market and take back the technological edge lost to Intel in recent months? How quickly and to what extent will OEMs and system builders buy into AMD's "native quad-core" narrative, which argues that independent core architecture and energy savings trump faster clock speeds on Intel's current quad-core Xeon server chips? And at what price?

OEMs and system builders that received samples a week or two ahead of Barcelona's launch say they aren't ready to issue benchmarks just yet. AMD claims its two-way and eight-way quad-core x86 chips, which range in speed from 1.7GHz to 2.0GHz, outperform their equivalent 3.0GHz dual-core cousins by up to 55 percent. The vendor also promises a 2.5GHz quad-core Opteron model, the 2360 SE, by December.

Meanwhile, partners say three key advances are testing out as advertised—a tri-level memory cache hierarchy with fully shared L3 cache for all four cores, a floating point unit with 2x128-bit loads/cycle, and independent power supplies for each of the processor's four cores and to the memory controller. The last feature distinguishes AMD's quad-core product from Intel's, in that it's possible to idle one, two or three CPU cores for a workload to better manage power consumption.

As far as pricing, AMD's initial offering of 1,000-unit tray quantities of the nine processors in the quad-core Opteron family ranged from $209 for the two-way 2344 HE (1.7GHz, 55W) to $1,019 for the eight-way 8350 (2.0GHz, 75W). By comparison, Intel's low-end quad-core x86, the Xeon E5310, clocks at 1.6GHz, consumes 80W and was priced at about $230 at press time. Of course, Intel's newest quad-core Xeons, the 7300—or Tigerton series—max out with the X7350 at 2.93GHz and 130W, priced at a whopping $2,301 at volume.

How those prices will stand in a month or two is a matter of speculation, and the market has seen any number of price wars between Intel and AMD before. AMD executives and partners in the know say Barcelona will continue to be competitively priced. Market watchers say it will have to be, given Intel's recent slashing of its own quad-core prices down to levels nearly in line with its Core 2 Duo products.

Beyond the technological or even economic appeal of Barcelona, OEMs and channel partners are just as excited about the prospect of AMD finally challenging market leader Intel with something new again. Intel launched its quad-core Kentsfield desktop and Clovertown server and workstation chips on Dec. 13, 2006. For system builders, from the tier-one giants down to the smallest custom shops, AMD's nearly yearlong absence from the quad-core game has been an uncomfortable stretch, with options for building next-generation systems increasingly reduced to Intel or nothing.

"I don't want to paint Intel as the evil empire, but like with Microsoft, monopolies aren't good for us, and it's nice to see another player on the field. With Barcelona, AMD's showing that they're willing to give Intel a run for their money," said Bill Paschick, president of Rain Recording, a custom-system builder specializing in digital audio workstations, notebooks and storage devices.

Next: Ramping Up, Rolling Out Ramping Up, Rolling Out
AMD executives, partners and analysts say the quad-core Opterons are better positioned to make an immediate impact on the server market than the original single-core and later dual-core were when they launched.

Tier-one OEMs Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Dell and Sun Microsystems made notable appearances at the Sept. 10 launch event. HP, which ships 37 percent of all Opteron-based servers, said it will start shipping AMD quad-core systems through its x86 ProLiant line beginning in the fourth quarter.

AMD Platinum partner Appro International will be moving quad-core Opterons into its customers' data centers and workstations even sooner, said Maria McLaughlin, director of marketing at the Milpitas, Calif., high-performance computing OEM. "We're putting together a lot of big deals with Barcelona already. But the sales cycle takes a lot of time. We're cooking up a big deal that we'll announce in October with a major data center," she said.

One early bone of contention in the channel was the release of quad-core samples to system builder partners. Some say they received their quad-cores a mere week before the launch date.

Dominic Daninger of Nor-Tech subsidiary Reason said he'd have liked to have received Barcelona samples sooner. He suspects that issues with processor speed caused sample delays, not to mention the delay of the product release itself.

"I think they had a lot of trouble getting the speed up to where they'd like to have it. A lot of what you read over the last several months is that they had trouble with that. But I've also heard that the silicon for the Phenom [AMD's quad-core desktop CPU] is really coming out well, as far as speed," said Daninger, vice president of engineering at the Burnsville, Minn.-based maker of high-end engineering workstations.

McLaughlin said AMD provided Appro with Barcelona samples well ahead of the launch.

"We had one at LinuxWorld [in mid-August] that was pretty good," McLaughlin said. "Everything they've been stating in terms of power and memory in terms of bandwidth, and having the native quad-core and floating point, have been the biggest things for processor-intensive computing," she said.

Rumors of dissatisfaction about sample releases were not lost on Intel. A spokesperson for the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip leader told CRN, "Usually before a major launch, we have samples out at least a month before."

Randy Allen, head of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD's Server and Workstation Division and the engineering leader of the original Opteron team, addressed the issue at a press lunch the day of the launch. He said AMD had trouble meeting the sample demands of many of its partners, from tier-ones on down, due to more requests than they had expected.

AMD CEO Hector Ruiz, also at the lunch, noted that there are some differences in the business relationships AMD has with its tier-one and Platinum OEM partners and with others, and that the chip maker values the channel highly.

"We've got 'commitment to the channel' tattooed on our butts at AMD," Ruiz said.

Ruiz said AMD has prepared its tier-one OEMs and channel partners to hit the ground running with Barcelona.

"We have nine validated server platforms at launch, a first for AMD, and AMD's channel partners can be early to market with quad-core AMD Opteron processor-based solutions. We have more than 50 quad-core-ready platforms available through leading OEMs like Acer, Cray, Dell, Egenera, Fujitsu-Siemens Computers, Gateway, HP, IBM and Sun for the VAR community. All of these are upgradable to quad-core AMD Opteron processors with a switch of the chip and a BIOS flash," he said.

Mercury Research analyst Dean McCarron thinks the speed at which AMD is planning to get its x86 quad-core into servers and workstations makes up for some of the time lost to Intel.

"The product that AMD is introducing will drop into existing dual-core server sockets pretty easily. A lot of their OEM customers are waiting for this product to do a platform refresh themselves. We should see a rapid conversion to Barcelona products, basically right at launch," McCarron said.

"What we'll end up seeing is a repeat of what we saw with the original Opteron," he added. "It did take several years for them to get significant presence with the original Opteron, to get those tier-one OEMs. And now they have the OEMs to drop in quad-core, and waiting for it. So the ramp-up for the quad-core is likely to be significantly faster than with the original Opteron. Factor in the time AMD has fallen behind Intel on quad-core, and it about evens out."

Next: What's Next? What's Next?
AMD might not have quite the "game-changer" it says it does, but if its main claims about Barcelona prove to be accurate, Reason's Daninger says they'll have a saleable product on their hands.

"It was a leapfrog game, and AMD leaped Intel, and now Intel has at least caught up and moved ahead in some areas. I'm not sure if there's going to be an AMD leap ahead of Intel this time. But we're hoping it proves out to be a very powerful floating point. If two of the benchmark areas, the floating point and the handling of massive amounts of memory, prove to be very strong, we'll have some interesting products to bring to market," he said.

Meanwhile, desktop builders like Rain Recording, which was an Intel-only shop for nearly 20 years, eagerly await the Phenom release. Paschick can't wait to build the company's first AMD-based workstation, dubbed Solstice, on an AMD desktop quad-core. According to AMD Desktop Products Brand Manager Brent Barry, Phenom will be released in December. A Phenom demo system showcased at the Barcelona launch event in San Francisco clocked at 3.0GHz, and insiders say speed issues that held up the quad-core Opteron release haven't been an issue with Phenom.

"We found that the price-per-performance for our new Solstice computer, our first AMD computer, is phenomenal. It's our best at Rain Recording. We're preparing for the launch of the desktop quad-core. Another wonderful positive is that when they announce that chip, we'll be able to deploy the next day. Because their CPUs are so well designed, we don't have to redesign the controller chipsets from the ground up. That's something we've never been able to do with Intel," he said.

Solstice will be added to the three Intel-based workstation lines Ringwood, N.J.-based Rain Recording already sells. Retailing at $1,499.95, the Solstice O1 is built on the AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core 5000+ with HyperTransport, featuring 2 Gbytes of RAM, a 250-Gbyte OS drive and a 250-Gbyte audio drive. The Solstice O2, selling for $1,799.95, has twice the RAM and audio drive space, and is powered by the Athlon 64 X2 6000+. Solstice workstations are about $800 cheaper than the system builder's lowest-priced Intel-based products.

Paschick credits his company's embrace of AMD to the chip maker's performance on platform delivery through its AMD Validated Solutions program. "With AVS, we said, 'Whoa, we can actually do this and they're going to back up the motherboards and do a one-day replacement.' We even like it better than Intel [platform programs] in some respects. With AMD, we're getting a closed ecosystem like Intel's with the board makers. But Intel's are in-house, so with AMD you also get board makers who are only board makers, that is, the core competency of what the board makers do best," he said.

How deep into AMD will Rain Recording go when Phenom hits the market? Paschick said a 50-50 mix is not out of the question.

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